COVID-19 disproportionately affects women

Michelle Meggs
Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Michelle Meggs, D.A., executive director of the Women + Girls Research Alliance at UNC Charlotte, didn’t mince her words in a piece she wrote for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute's newsletter.

In a recent article. she opens with an alarming statement: “We are exposing women to COVID-19. We are killing women as they are trying to save us.”

Meggs, who holds a Doctor of Arts in Humanities with a concentration in Africana Women’s Studies from Clark Atlanta University, was featured in a related story in the Charlotte Observer, in which she looked at the factors that cause women to be disproportionately affected by COVID-19 job losses.

W+GRA collaborates with faculty, students and the community to provide opportunities for research and education on policy issues affecting women. 

Meggs recently responded to several questions about the uneven impact of the pandemic on women:

Why is COVID-19 such a threat to women, even more so than men? What are some of the main factors? 

Because of the historic pay inequities between women and men, women are more likely to be low wage workers and oftentimes are working more than one job in order to ensure the financial stability of their families. These jobs are underpaid and undervalued and yet they are considered essential. The women in these positions may use public transportation at higher rates and are unable to practice the social distancing necessary to avoid infection.

Women are more likely to have more front-facing positions, such as careers in the restaurant, health care, education and hospitality industry where they come into contact with the public frequently. They have a higher chance of being exposed to the coronavirus as a result of regular contact with the public.

While men are part of the essential labor workforce, women are responsible for a large amount of the unpaid labor that comes from household work including childcare, elder care and serving as educators since schools are closed. 

Is it specific to this pandemic that so many heroes are women?

The “heroes” narrative can be particularly problematic for some women. For others it is a badge of honor. Women are stepping up to meet the challenges that the pandemic poses because they see it as part of their job, it is their responsibility, and they signed up for this. Others may see themselves as being asked to lay their lives on the line and risk dying from a virus. Nonwhite women are more likely to hold essential jobs than anyone else. The pandemic reveals how we undervalue the work that sustains the local, national and global economies, particularly the work performed by women.

Is this a dilemma that existed prior to the pandemic and was it exacerbated by the rapid spread of the coronavirus? 

This pandemic highlights the problems that those who fight against poverty, homelessness, sexual and domestic violence have already known. Moreover, it exacerbates the socio-economic inequalities around race, class and gender within our society and places the most vulnerable at higher risk during this pandemic.

The World Health Organization (W.H.O) has noted that the rates of domestic violence increase during times of natural disasters. The coronavirus is such a disaster with the rising death rates, and there is no cure on the horizon. The negative impact on the emotional and mental health of individuals during these unprecedented times contributes to higher rates of intimate partner violence. For those who are suffering from domestic violence the call for social distancing and stay at home orders places them in constant contact with their abusers and fewer opportunities for escape. Children who witness and are victims of violence suffer from its long-term effects.

The lack of access to economic resources, household essentials and food availability for many communities is a very present reality. This frustration with the lack of resources represents some of the factors that lead to the increase in calls to domestic violence hotlines and social service agencies. However, with many agencies closed because of the pandemic, women are further removed from the resources they need for assistance. These agencies need more funding in order to provide support and safe havens for women and children.

Women and girls become particularly vulnerable as some landlords seek to sexually exploit them in payment for rent. While this is illegal, women who are immigrants, those with bad credit, who cannot speak English and others who are in precarious situations are groups at risk for sexual exploitation. 

Are there adequate safety nets for women?

There has been a significant lack of overall investment in societal safety nets in general, and for women and girls in particular. Over the last four decades, state and federal funding for safety net programs has decreased creating considerable gaps in our capacity to respond to growing needs. The virus revealed the inadequacies and vulnerabilities in our social programs that advocates warned us about for some time. It showed us that low income women and children remain among the most socio-economically disadvantaged groups in our society. Poor black and brown women and children fare even worse.

This pandemic has revealed how the lack of funding for these social safety nets has impacted people from all racial socio-economic backgrounds who needed access to these services. Scarce resources dried up quickly and the face of those seeking assistance changed revealing the huge systemic flaws. Many have found themselves maneuvering antiquated and punitive systems that low-income people face every day. 

Is there any reason to be hopeful that minds will be expanded and this dynamic might actually change in the future? 

First, we must always hold on to hope. This pandemic exposed the gaps and identified where additional financial resources are needed. We must increase funding to our social safety networks so that we can better respond to the critical needs of women and girls outside of a pandemic, increase the availability of paid sick leave for all workers, improve access to Medicaid for everyone, boost funding to domestic violence services and expand unemployment insurance to help fill in the gaps during times of economic distress.

Second, closing the gender pay gap between women and men must be a priority. Equal pay for equal work must be the goal. Women who are compensated fairly and equally for their labor are able to increase their economic power and make better choices for themselves and their families.

Third, expanding funding for educational and training opportunities for all women, especially low-income women, is key to protecting women from poverty. Investing in women’s education in addition to providing on and off campus support services such as counseling and affordable childcare contributes to their future economic security. 

What role does the Women + Girls Research Alliance have in addressing the uneven impact of the pandemic on women?

The role of the Women + Girls Research Alliance is to be a leading catalyst for change to improve the lives of women and girls in the Charlotte metro area. This is achieved through unbiased research, education and community engagement. The alliance is focused on five main areas: education, employment and earnings; civic and political engagement; economic security; health and well-being, and ending violence against women. We do not propose to have all the answers. However, the alliance seeks collaboration with our campus, corporate and community partners to find solutions through research, programming and dialogue. Our goal is to engage with the community to see what is needed rather than dictate those needs and work to address the fundamental regional issues for women and girls.